FHWA Highway Trust Fund Obligations by Improvement Type, Fiscal Year 2013. Source: GAO
FHWA Highway Trust Fund Obligations by Improvement Type, Fiscal Year 2013. Source: GAO
  • Here's how the remaining 36% is spread around:

    Project development (planning, engineering, and right-of-way acquisition) 20%

  • Safety, enhancements and other improvements 8%
  • Sidewalks and bicycle trails 1%

As a nation we're pressuring street and road agencies to save us from our lives of abundance. We want to be able to amble to downtowns filled with restaurants and stores and other attractions. If walking's not an option, we want to reach the closest consumer mecca via the clean, fast, and inexpensive public transit option of our choice - and then walk or rent a bike.

If that's what we want, why aren't we spending accordingly?

FHWA gets 81% of revenue generated by federal fuel taxes. In 2013, that was $41 billion. The agency obligated 90% to state and local DOTs, who used it to reconstruct, resurface, and rehabilitate roads and bridges.

A lot more is actually spent on improvements because voters almost always approve measures to fund badly needed local improvements (if the need is adequately explained). In essence, we've proven our willingness to tax ourselves a second time to maintain our quality of life.

So if we really, truly want to lower air pollution and traffic congestion, why does the Federal Transit Administration get just 17% of the Highway Trust Fund?*

Maybe it just takes a long time to unwind policy that's half a century old. When the trust fund was established in 1956 we were experiencing a growth spurt and the world was our oyster. Now we're struggling to pay our bills.

The Baby Boom's successors face a different reality with vastly different resources. It will be interesting to see what their funding philosophy turns out to be.

Thoughts? If so, comment below or e-mail [email protected]. And Happy Thanksgiving.

* The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration each get 1% of trust funds.